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Volume 5 Issue 03 | March 2011



Original Forum

Readers' Forum

Sultana's Nightmare:
Henas and the Feminist Movement
--Shahana Siddiqui
Women in the CHT: The Violent Hills --Hana Shams Ahmed
Notes to My Successor:
The Forgotten Women of the 1971 War

--Ziauddin Choudhury
Liberating the Women of 1971
Interview with Shafina Lohani
Interview with Mahmuda Haque Choudhury

--Marianne Scholte
Woman on a Mission
--Marianne Scholte talks to Shafina Lohani
Project Post-1971
--Marianne Scholte speaks to Mahmuda Haque Choudhury
Her Home
--Shayera Moula
Photo Feature: Freedom at 40--Zahedul I. Khan

Journeys through Shadows:
Gender and armed conflict
--Bina D'Costa

Women as Decision Makers:
Are organisations ready?
--Dr. Syed Saad Andaleeb
Govern Migration, Take Women Forward --Farheen Khan
Women's Rights and the Fourth Estate
--Arafat Hosen Khan
Why Women in India Should
Defend Arundhati Roy

A Patriotic Dissenter
Empress Extraordinaire
--Rubaiyat Hossain


Forum Home

Project Post-1971

Marianne Scholte speaks to Mahmuda Haque Choudhury about her life after 1971 as the country's first woman to enter the Foreign Service.

You were Bangladesh's first woman ambassador. How did this come about?
Well, let me tell you the background first. My mother was admitted to the Shakhawat Memorial Girls School in Calcutta, but my grandmother wanted her to get married and have a son. So she was married at the age of 13, and I was born when she was not even 14. Can you imagine? Anyway, my mother resolved that her daughter (me) would be educated and identified by her own name. But my plan was to get married and be the loving wife of a handsome man. My mother said, "No, I will not let get you get married until you finish your Master's degree. On the day you finish your exams, whoever comes, I will give you to him." Thank God handsome Shamsul Haque was the first man who came after my exams!

I was married to Shamsul Haque (who wanted an educated wife), and we had two daughters. By the time the War of Liberation broke out, he was the Superintendent of Police in Chittagong. He supported Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. They were attacked, and there was terrible fighting on the police line from the 26th to the 29th of March. He was then arrested on April 17, .1971, and I never saw him again.

After the war was over, I met the Relief Minister and he told me not to worry, that I would be getting relief. I was very angry. I had not come for relief. I had everything I needed -- my brain, my hands, legs, eyes, ears, everything was there. I wanted to be utilised to rebuild the country. It was my husband who had laid down his life. It was my responsibility to carry on.

So I organised a group of widows in the same situation, and we went to see Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on January 18, 1972. Mrs. Budrunnessa Ahmad went with us. Everyone told their story and when my turn came, I told him that relief was not the answer, that all these women were educated and had children to look after. They needed to work and earn a respectable living. Shortly after that, Mr. Rafiqullah Chowdhury called me and told me that I had been posted to the Prime Minister's Secretariat as an Assistant Secretary.

So how did you get to the Foreign Office?
So I went to see Bangabandhu, who asked me what I really wanted to do. And I said, "Sir, I want to be your ambassador." And he said, "Ambassador? Women do not become ambassadors." And I said; "Why don't women become ambassadors? Because they do not have the education or training? But I have a Master's degree in political science. I just need the training." And he said; "Okay, you will be an ambassador, but let us see how we do it."

Of course, it wasn't that easy. Women were not allowed in the Foreign Office in the Pakistan time. But Bangabandhu said, "This is not Pakistan anymore. It is Bangladesh." So he signed a document mandating that 10% of all civil service jobs be given to women. Then in April 1972, I was transferred to the Foreign Office.

Were there any women at all in the Foreign Office?
No, not one! No secretaries, no peons. No one.

The first person I met was the Foreign Secretary. He got up and opened the door to his office for me when I was leaving and said, "Anytime you come to my office, I have to get out of my chair and open the door for you." But I said; "Sir, don't think of me as a woman, think of me as an officer." He said, "What? Forget that you are a woman?"

Of course, there was no women's toilet, so I had to go to the house of a friend nearby. Later I searched the whole building for a room with an attached bath. I found a small room, where a clerk was sitting, and they gave it to me.

So what was your first position at the Foreign Office?
They asked me what I wanted to do. Well, Sir Siddhartha Shankar Ray, the Chief Minister of West Bengal was coming with his wife and they needed a protocol officer. So I said that I would be good in protocol and they said, "Okay, be the protocol officer." And that became my job. During the next period quite a few dignitaries came, including President Tito of Yugoslavia and his wife. I also met the Australian High Commissioner to Bangladesh, who invited me to take part in foreign service officer's training in Australia. I went there for three months -- my children stayed with my mother.

While I was there, I learned that Australia was looking for guest workers, and when I came back I wrote a memo about the idea of exporting our unemployed workers, with details about which countries needed what kind of workers. Mr. Faruk Sobhan, who was my senior, liked the idea and wrote a three-page report on it. He later supported me when I wanted to go to the United States to get my Master's degree from Fletchers School of Law and Diplomacy -- which I needed to do because some people still thought I was not good enough to be in the Foreign Office.

When I came back, Bangabandhu was dead and they tried to throw me out. But I knew President Zia from the time that he and my husband had been fighting in Chittagong. I rang him up and he called back immediately and said, "How can they throw you out of the Foreign Office? The Prime Minister ordered you to be there." President Zia then procured a copy of the document instructing the service reorganisation office to encadre me when the cadre was formed, and he gave it to me. It had the signature of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Maybe he saw that I was struggling so hard to do something and honoured my effort.

How long did it take until more women joined the Foreign Service?
The next woman in the cadre came in 1979. She appeared for exams, etc., the regular route. The second one in 1981 -- again, only one. But after that, more than one woman came at a time. There is still the quota, but it is an open, competitive process now and there are more women.

So you were finally officially inducted into the Foreign Service?
Yes, from then on, I was a regular officer. No more disturbing a president or prime minister. Regular cadre. In my first position they sent me to Sri Lanka as First Secretary. I was also First Secretary in Abu Dhabi and in Manila I was Charge d' Affaires. I was Bangladesh's first woman ambassador -- in Bhutan from 1996 to 1998. Then they transferred me to London as the Deputy High Commissioner and after that I retired -- in 2000.

That is a really wonderful story. I am so glad I heard it.
Well, I was my mother's project. When I lost my husband I thought I better fulfil my mother's dream.



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